For the last three years, I’ve been traveling and writing about the subjects of fear and living with uncertainty. This month I’m in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, glad to be in residence at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I live and work in the fellows’ residence and studio barn complex, surrounded by 400 acres of rolling pasture and farmland.
Last week, Ayesu Lartey, a writer, performer and composer in residence, offered to sing for us, five people at a time in the barn silo. The white silo door is located within the Normandy style barn, on the far wall of the artists’ kitchen. The walls are white too, with the door blending in, so you might not even notice it’s there. Or dismiss it as a closet. But inside is a 60 foot tower with glazed red brick walls, and a black ladder to the conical roof.
Only five of us can enter the silo because that’s all the space can hold. We sit on benches on either side of Ayesu who stands in the center. With the door shut, and the light switched off, it’s pitch black. I have a fear of enclosed spaces, of not being able to find my way out. In this kind of dark, I lose all sense of direction, of exit. I don’t know if I can do this, I say. But Patricia, who sits across from me on the other bench, said, You’ll be okay. You’ll hear the music.
In that perfect dark, I thought, okay, go into the music. Ayesu sang “Amazing Grace.” I wish you could hear it, wish I could play the recording which I’d accidentally erased. I’d been trying to trim it, cut off my words of fear preceding his song. Just give you the song. But now all I have to give you is my fear and this story of how I went into his song in the silo. It circled us and rose. We breathed it. The silo held corn in the years before the artists arrived, a cylinder of gold. Ayesu’s song transformed the silo into a sacred place, and all of us inside.
More than 20 years ago, I read Ellen Bryant Voight’s poem “Song and Story,” in The Atlantic. It is one of the poems that I hear over and over. Especially, this line: “The one who can sing, sings to the one who can’t.”
I think of it so often in relation to writing. On Tuesday, eight poets responded to my question, What can poetry do? The conversation continues here, with eight more poets who sing for us:
Thulani Davis' once said to me after attending a good friend's funeral years ago: Poets sing us into the world and sing us out of the world. I think she meant we create the lullabies and the elegies. We shape language to meet human needs (my feeling about this). Poetry matters as does music and dance and picture making/picture fragmenting. We live in dark times. We have always lived in dark times. Poets have been making poems that light the way or embrace the darkness. Or we let our work suffer the consequences of neglect-the relentless debasement of humanity.
Adrienne Rich has said that “Poetry is the liquid voice that can wear through stone.” Though I have written celebratory poems, love poems, I have especially turned to poetry in the darker times to make sense where there is no sense, during grief or rage where one feels simultaneously paralyzed and ready to explode—a friend’s suicide, a loved one’s serious illness, a betrayal.
For these types of poems, I think of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, where he says that “wolves in shells are crueler than stray ones” as a way to describe what he calls “the most decisive type of aggressiveness, which is postponed aggressiveness, aggressiveness that bides its time.” Bachelard talks about how creatures in shells, like mollusks, that may appear to be stationary or to display very little motion, actually have energy amassing inside their containers, a force that, in its own time, will explode.
When dealing with subjects like grief or rage, the poem might begin from the vantage point of Bachelard’s mollusk, which “by staying in the motionlessness of its shell…is preparing temporal explosions, not to say whirlwinds, of being.” Within the confines and safety of this shell, all hell can break loose—wailing and head banging and fist pounding—all imperceptible to the outside world. Hopefully if things gestate enough and are worked through enough and refined enough, out the opening will come the poem—a creature connected to both the internal chaos and external world, if not wiser then more aware, carrying a shell that simultaneously contains and releases.
In 1996, a year before I started writing poems in earnest, I moved to Kansas to attend graduate school. I had left my home in rural Pennsylvania with a desperation that I masked as enthusiasm, but once in Kansas I was lonely and lost in a landscape so open that I felt as though I might, at any moment, fall straight off of it.
I spent my evenings pacing the floor of my little four-plex apartment, reading poems aloud. In this new, alien landscape, I was trying to figure out what it meant to be from (and to have left) where I’m from—a throwback place of timber and farms where, on clear nights, you can see the Milky Way. A place where the first day of each deer season (doe and buck) is a school holiday. A place where, in sixth grade speech class, more than one boy gave a speech demonstrating how to clean a hunting rifle. A place where, when I stopped playing football after eighth grade, a town cop stopped me on the street to convince me to reconsider. So did the school librarian. I had wanted out, and now, here I was, lost and sad in Kansas, pacing my little rooms and turning and returning to James Wright, who was lost and sad and trying to figure out what it meant to be from Martin’s Ferry, a little mill town on the Ohio River.
In “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio” I heard exactly the tones of grief—exactly the mixture of nostalgia and and bitterness, belonging and alienation, that I felt. Mine was not an industry town, but I knew the proud fathers, the love-starved mothers, the suicidal boys. I knew the desperation that comes from choosing what traps you. I read the poem over and over aloud, and each time it said to me: I know. It’s not just you. And that’s what a poem can do—it can sing to us in our darkness like we wish our mothers had. And it can invite us to sing back, like coyotes calling to each other across a canyon, so that we all might feel less alone.
I went through a period of terrible health problems in my early twenties, debilitated by disease both physical and psychological, Years later, when I had been well for a good long while, my father gave me a poem that he’d written during the height of my illness. Let me say this more clearly: my father, not a poet by any means, had written a poem at a time when he feared for my life, a poem which he showed to no one. No “I” appears in the poem, and the “you” of the poem is the type of far off second person that shows up sometimes when people write about the most intimate details of their lives, when the subject feels too immense, too bewildering. While I’m sure that at the time, my father turned to various people for support, what he also turned to was the action of making a poem. One of poetry’s greatest utilities is its capacity as both balm and companion. Grief and fear are places where one so often stands alone (It seems impossible to fully share any loss), but somehow, poetry is able to stand with us, to be a place where we can catch our breath, like a sudden raft at sea.
I'm lucky now to be healthy, and lucky to have seen the poem where my father rested, for a minute, when he was afraid that he was going to lose me. It’s a kind of monument. Were his poem a place, I think I’d return there year after year (with my father, if he wanted), to see how the land was changing, to see how the sky still looked from that hill. Yet another thing that poetry can do— it can make us grateful to have survived.
Poetry can tell you when the train is coming and if it's a cargo or passenger. It can tell you how to hang your white wood folding chair in the cow pasture and how to unfold it when you are ready to sit there so that it looks like you are at a wedding with one guest and no bride or groom. Poetry can make you hear the poems recited by the nearly blind poet on 92nd street so that you and your beloved feel as though you feel heat from the earth's core that becomes a vibration in your legs and in your tears. Poetry can summon your own hooting in response to the barn owl's call at one a.m. Poetry allows you to hear voices of those you love and those you hate and those you grieve flooding from your mouth.
What can poetry do? It can take the reader to places not previously known: dark places, bright places. It can make music for your ears. It can create an experience not previously had by the reader, and it can teach the reader. Teach the reader what? Reality. Poems may be like dreams, but they are not dreams. A poem takes us closer to the things of this world, nearer to truth, face to face with oneself.
What can poetry do for the poet? It takes the poet out of time. Working on a poem, one forgets time. One lives in eternity. One is surprised upon returning to the world, which may have changed. The poet's perspective may have changed. For the poet, writing a poem is as exciting as white water rafting, as dangerous and exhilarating as Bungee jumping. Poets are not sedentary, not in their minds; they take enormous leaps, walk for miles, dance, and holler. Writing a poem is like playing a game of chess with God, were there a God.
Frankly, poetry is a survival strategy for me. I‘ve always had great difficulty ordering my mind in a rational, linear manner, and I often seem to be coming out of left field at odd times. As a kid, this caused a tremendous amount of shame. For years I dealt with that shame in self-destructive ways, but the one empowering way I have avoided feeling self-conscious, stupid or crazy (and I mean that with a sense of humor) is when I view and process the world through the lens of poetry. Poetry reassures me that other people see and feel the things mere language isn’t equipped to convey. It reassures me that there are indeed alternate and always undiscovered realities.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about poetry’s ability to help us grieve – for ourselves, for each other – and always to bear witness. Suffering is very often a private thing. But to become more than just suffering, something transformative, it needs to be shared. This is why we have ritual. And poetry is a kind of ritual, with its own conventions, its own internal logic of organizing and ordering emotion and different registers of language. Poetry is the closest grief has to expression in language. Without it, we would be reduced to a single, unending cry of inexpressible hurt. With it, we exercise our prerogative to be human, in conversation with a grief that would otherwise destroy us.